Sunday, November 8, 2009

Tell It Like It Is

One of the books we had to read in advance for the Preacher's College last week was Tell It Like It Is: Reclaiming the Practice of Testimony by Lillian Daniel (our guest presenter at the College). This book is based on her D.Min. dissertation and focuses on reclaiming the tradition of Testimony for "mainline" churches (think Congregationalist, Methodist, Episcopal, Lutheran, even Catholic). She developed a practice at her church in New Haven (and brought it with her to Chicago) of inviting lay members of the congregation to give testimony from the heart (usually only for about 7-8 minutes) about their life with God. The only real rule (besides the time limit and the fact that these folk were specifically invited by the pastor) was that Testimonies could not be "godless." What she didn't want to hear was, "What I learned about myself in psychotherapy," nor, "What civic minded people can accomplish when they work together." The point is to talk about how God is active in your life.

The practice was very successful and brought people closer together in the congregation. It also helped to spread out leadership and foster both discipleship and (yes) stewardship.

So she wanted to talk to us about how this practice can be helpful to congregations as well as how the use of personal testimony in preaching can be a powerful tool. To this end she had us read a book she co-wrote with Martin Copenhaven, This Odd and Wondrous Calling: The Public and Private Lives of Two Ministers. This book reads as a series of essays reflecting on different aspects of the pastoral vocation. Many of them are amusing, thoughtful, and certainly familiar to those of us "in the cloth." It would be a great book for anyone considering ordained ministry, and was written to be a counterpoint to such books as Leaving Church by Barbara Brown Taylor (which focused on the problems of life in pastoral leadership) and the You-Can-Make-Your-Mega-Church-Grow-with-Jesus'-Help kind of books. It provides some good examples of how personal narrative can be used to make theological arguments in a far more compelling way than the products of "illustration factories." You know, those cutesy generic sermon illustrations you can find on various sermon-writing websites.

The "College of Preachers" is run by St. Clement's Church here in Toronto but is really meant to be a National programme. They have a sermon number of slots for Toronto priests and then the other half are taken by priests from around the Anglican Church of Canada. You have to be nominated by your bishop to attend. The College happens every two-years.

About a week before the event I was told I would be preaching at Morning Prayer on the first day of the conference. I had no idea what the readings would be, so I prepared a sermon that made good use of personal narrative and was pleased that it did, in fact, go with the readings. Mine was the first sermon heard this year, so I was naturally more nervous than usual. But it went well.

As our days together went one we heard talks by Lillian and then broke up into groups hear each other preach and critique. We also had times of prayer and recreation.

It was wonderful to be with other clergy and talk about preaching, though not without some interesting disagreements on things like the usefulness of the lectionary. There was also a fruitful discussion about one should preach at wedding and funerals (seems like a great evangelism opportunity to me, but some pastors disagree). Lots of discussion of clergy role, boundaries, etc.

David Montgomery (one of the priest's at St. Clement's) did an excellent job with the Offices. He even did some "Paperless Music" using the Music by Heart Hymnal. He's the first person I've seen use it (besides Eric and I) in Toronto, so I was very excited to see how easily he was able to do it. Naturally I told him that I would meeting with the All Saint's Company folks that wrote that hymnal in a few days!

There is an interesting quality to praying together at these sorts of retreats. Something about having a roomful of clergy praying together makes for a very special atmosphere. Something about the shared ministry and collegiality makes for really rich prayer time together. Nor is it necessarily limited to ordained clergy, I experienced the same thing with the mostly lay-group in Atlanta.

I had to leave the College after the last full-day. I missed the banquet dinner and the last Plenary talk and Lillian's sermon, alas. But I had to catch my flight to Atlanta, which I will blog about soon....


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